Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why Excel is Like Duct Tape

Sugar, like many men, can fix almost anything that breaks with a roll of duct tape. It has uses far beyond those originally envisioned by its designer--as does MS Excel.

Not so long ago, in another life, I was a project manager. This is one of those job descriptions like "consultant," that can mean many things depending on the context, and while I once toured the Adam & Eve warehouse in North Carolina (purely professional--they had distribution needs, I had distribution software--though they did offer me a free sample of my choice) most of my days were spent staring at Excel spreadsheets.

So, when Sugar gave me the green light to make things up and write them down full time, (thus securing his position as a patron of the, ahem…arts) at first I was adrift without my lines and columns. I tried story boards, which in my case were foam boards with elaborate charts and pictures of my characters cut out of catalogs and magazines. But large foam boards were difficult to transport, which was a problem since my life most resembles that of a gypsy. I tried making notes about each chapter on index cards, but since I can't read my own handwriting, this didn't work out either.

At this, my larval stage as a writer, I had not yet considered the profound question of whether I was a plotter or a pantser. I had no clue that I needed to be one or the other, as I had not yet read the hundred books on writing that now have their own shelf in my bookcase, nor had I attended the slew of conferences and workshops that would come over the next few years. I was winging it. Hey, I'd READ a lot of books. Surely I could write one... Yes, in fact, I was that ignorant.

After a few months of experimenting and suffering from depression as a result of spreadsheet withdrawal, I figured out that Excel worked great as a writing tool. I've learned so much in the last few years, and as with any craft, I know I need to continue learning. But the one thing I've hung onto from those early days is the use of spreadsheets for plotting. (I now know that--big surprise here--I'm schizophrenic. I'm a plotter who turns into a pantser at the drop of a hat. (Okay, if you're not a writer, and you've read this far, a pantser is one who writes by the seat of his/her pants--organically. Her characters tell her what happened and she transcribes their story.)

I have one Excel workbook per project. Within that workbook, I have one tab with a spreadsheet for characters. This tab typically has columns for not only biographical info and physical description, but quirks that define the character. Another spreadsheet has a plot outline. This starts simple, with a beginning, middle, and end, and expands as I add lines for each chapter as the story comes together. When my characters take over and tear off on a tangent--and I love those days; those days are magic--I simply open the spreadsheet and document where they've taken me when we get back.

There is one danger in using Excel as a plotting tool for a novel: a reader cannot keep in his/her head everything that you can keep track of in a spreadsheet. I learned this the hard way, and had to rip out my first novel at the seams and remove an entire subplot and several characters.

On the plus side, Excel is highly portable, and I can read what I type into my lines and columns. Excel helps me maintain order in my virtual universe. If only reality were so easily organized...

Many plotters and half-breeds like me struggle with how best to organize their work. Check out Julie Weathers' blog post from yesterday. She has a copy of J. K. Rowling's solution posted.

Peace, out...



Valerie Norris said...

An Excel spreadsheet? I'm impressed! Or maybe I mean horrified. Actually, I used the "table" feature in MS Word to keep track of each chapter of my last novel. Needed it because of the multiple POV characters. I'd always written from a single POV before, and I'd written myself into several ditches before I made my table. I'm not a great plotter, although I'm working on it. You need a plot, apparently.

Keep going, Susan. Love your blogs.

Julie Weathers said...

That was a great post. I haven't given up on Excel, but for now I'll stick with the detailed outline for FR.

Diane Wagner said...

I LOVE Excel for organizing my thinking .... I use a six column format: Chapter, Scene, Start Page, POV, Action & Notes. LOVE-IT!


Henry said...

Silly Girl, Spreadsheets are for numbers.

Okay, I admit, up until this spring I would have fervently argued your same points on behalf of Microsoft Word. I never understood those actuaries that wrote macros to make Lotus 1-2-3 and then Excel into a word processor. Yes, I work with computers all day. Yes, I'm no fan of the Evil Microsoft Empire. BUT – there are exceptions to every rule.

Microsoft Outlook for e-mail is better by far than all the challengers I've used to date. Word & Excel and the rest of the Office Suite are generally on par with Open Office. Then, a Microsoft Acolyte opened my eyes – or my fingers, whichever.

Microsoft OneNote!

I was skeptical. Microsoft couldn't really create an electronic notebook that would work the way I wanted it to, or could they. I'm hooked. OneNote gives me notebooks, sections, and pages. I can write (type), draw, paste pictures, paste web pages, and even print to it. It files it all away and indexes it for fast searching. You can even record speech and it'll attempt to index that too. I've been a paper notebook aficionado since elementary school. I've tried three-ring binders, wire bound, clip boards, and composition books. For a long time I favored gridded engineer notebooks – for the truly anal-retentive computer science geeks. No more.

I now use OneNote at work to keep all my notes – I never could read my writing months later and I can type faster than I can write in cursive – go figure. I also use OneNote for my fiction. One general notebook for references, tools, miscellaneous story ideas and what not. I have another notebook for the Great American Novel. I have sections for planning (to do list), plot outlines, characters, settings, and research.

So talk to patron Sugar, go download the thirty-day free trial from Microsoft and be prepared to fork over the $90 dollars to keep it longer. And yes, it even handles tables.


P.S. did I mention that I can have ruled or gridded pages in my notebooks and for the artistic types, you can even have page backgrounds.

Barbara said...

What? The Queen of Spreadsheets didn't immediately track her novel in Excel? Susan, I'm surprised that you didn't go there to begin with, knowing your passion for data.

I have a spreadsheet that tracks chapters broken down by POV, characters, and synopsis. Then I have a tab that keeps track of the characters' appearance & traits, and another tab that covers traditions in my story's world.

I might have to check out OneNote. I've not really explored it yet, but thanks to Henry, I'll have to check.

Kaye George said...

I started using Excel a few projects ago and can't imagine doing a whole novel without it now. I color code different red herrings and plot points and keep track of where the characters are when they're off stage. I use lots of sheets! Love it! Of course, I used to be a programmer, so....